Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Reflection: The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later

One of the articles on the November 30, 2010 Huffington Post website has as a subject the case that may be the first federal prosecution under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.  

Swastika-Shaving Case To Be First Test Of New Hate Crimes Law Named For Matthew Shepard


I took advantage of an opportunity provided at Arena Stage who presented Tectonic Theater Project for five performances over one weekend in the Kreeger Theater of their original theatrical piece, The Laramie Project and its follow-up, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.      I remember well the media storm that surrounded the horrific beating and death of Matthew Shepard and had been aware of The Laramie Project's numerous stage productions and the HBO film version.     However, this was the very first time that I had actually seen the play.    It is a very powerful piece that is very open and fair to the residents of Laramie, Wyoming who agreed to be interviewed.

For those not familiar with the work, The Laramie Project was created by Moises Kauffman and the members of Tectonic Theater Project.   The head writer is Leigh Fondakowski, associate writers Stephen Belber, Greg Pierotti and Stephen Wangh, dramaturgs Amanda Gronich, Sarah Lambert, John McAdams, Maude Mitchell, Andy Paris, Barbara Pitts and Kelli Simpkins.     They wrote the piece based on interviews, their own journals, news stories and broadcasts and the trial transcripts.   As a result it is a raw theatrical experience as it is entirely based on the words of real people commenting on real events.

What struck me the most about the piece is the impact a horrendous crime can have on a relatively small community.    Laramie, Wyoming is a small city that is the home to the University of Wyoming.    The horrific nature of the crime brought the national media bearing down on the community.   The story in the media became how rural communities are intolerant to gays.    One of the striking themes of these plays is how much The Laramie Project and its sequel condemn the national media.    Through the course of the three acts of the original The Laramie Project,  the audience gets to know several of the members of the Laramie community quite well.  There is humor and pathos in their words.  They are ordinary people with the flaws and frailties that every member of the human race possess.    Yet, time and again the audience is told by many different people, crimes like this don't happen in a place like Laramie.   The problem is yes they do.   The truth of The Laramie Project is while it is wrong to condemn an entire community for the brutal acts that happen within it, crimes such as the beating death of Matthew Shepard do happen....and no one community is immune from them.

The Laramie Project strikingly does not contain any words from Matthew Shepard's mother and his father is only represented through his statements to the media.  The tale is still powerful without their personal perspective.   Still one's heart breaks as the original emergency room doctor describes the severe injuries that his hospital was unable to properly treat and the chilling realization that one of the attackers was treated for injuries received in "a fight"in the same emergency room.     The female sheriff's deputy who helped release Matthew from the fence to which he was so tightly bound that she went through the entire supply of cheap rubber gloves while performing the rescue, ended up having to undergo preventative treatment as there was a fear that Matthew was HIV positive.     The witnesses to the prelude to the event in the Fireside Lounge provide both a eagerness to cooperate with the media and the actors, seeming to enjoy the spotlight, yet provide contempt for the killers as they provide eyewitness testimony to how everyone was behaving that night undercutting the defense that was used in their trial.

The killers themselves were not interviewed.    They are only represented through the trial transcripts, the interviews they gave in jail and through certain community members who interacted with them, such as the sheriff's deputies and the clergy.     It is interesting that of the two, Russell Henderson comes off as almost sympathetic.    The original play mentions that one of the consequences for Henderson was that he was excommunicated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.   For those unfamiliar with what this means in the Mormon faith, it means that he will not be united with his family in the afterlife.     Henderson pled guilty and agreed to testify against Aaron McKinney in exchange for not receiving the death penalty.    McKinney was found guilty and it was the testimony of Matthew Shepard's father that spared him the death penalty.   They are now serving consecutive life terms in federal prison.

The Laramie Project is an emotional work.   Several audience members could be heard sobbing at several points during the performance.   What would be the emotional impact of the sequel, Ten Years Later?

The Laramie Project:  Ten Years Later is not as emotionally draining as the original piece.    This piece was written in the same manner this time by Moises Kauffman, Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris and Stephen Belber.  The dramaturg is Jimmy Maize.     The members of Tectonic Theater Project traveled back to Laramie for the tenth anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death.    They use the same techniques to write and tell the story.  

Ten Years Later the bar, the Fireside Lounge has been sold and renamed.  The fence where Matthew Shepard was tied up and left to die has been removed as the private owner of the land became tired of the site becoming a pilgrimage site.

Laramie has seemingly become numb and tired of being known as the place where Matthew Shepard was killed.   Any community that has been the focus of so much negative media attention would deservedly want the world to move on.    The actors discover more resistance among their interviewees.   And there is a twist to the tale.     Despite having the trial transcripts and interviews with the killers, a new narrative as to how Matthew Shepard came to be murdered surfaced in 2004.    The ABC news program 20/20 produced a story which included a jail interview with Aaron McKinney.   In the story McKinney claimed that Matthew was a drug dealer and that the murder was a drug deal gone bad.   The town was deeply wounded by this new story and in evidence, in the form of a hard copy of an email left behind by 20/20,  it was clear that there was a sensationalist agenda to the story.     For the record, in the original trial, the girlfriends of McKinney and Henderson testified that neither killer was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  

But the damage was done.   After a sparsely attended ceremony at the University of Wyoming to dedicate a bench in Matthew's memory, the theater company members interviewed several of the college students.    They would have been elementary school age at the time of Matthew's death.  It is clear that many of them believe the story that Matthew was a drug dealer and that in some way, got what he deserved.    It is clear in interviews with some of the people in the town that they have come to believe the new story as well.     Why?    Isn't it easier to believe that the original true narrative isn't true?   The actual story is a young man, who was gay, was simply selected to be robbed and attacked because he was small, thus easier to overpower, wealthy and gay.    If he's a drug dealer then there is some twisted reason for the events.   And it's comforting to think that, no,  our community didn't raise people who could do this to an innocent man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Ten Years Later feels a bit more like a documentary, almost a where are they now piece.    We are reintroduced to faculty at the University who are frustrated that the younger generation doesn't want to remember and commemorate what happened.     We meet Matthew's friend, Romaine Patterson, who has become a well-known activist for her efforts to block Westboro Baptist Church from interrupting Matthew's funeral and the trials of his killers.   (the controversial leader of the Church is depicted in the original Laramie Project, but not in Ten Years Later).

There is some emotional payoff for the audience, as there are two legislative events documented in the second act.    One is the defeat of the constitutional amendment to the Wyoming Constitution that would have defined marriage as between one man and one woman.    The defeat of the legislation was actually due to the effort of the Republican members of the legislature who citied the history of Wyoming as the equality state and the home of the first legislation permitting women to vote.    The second is the drive to pass the federal Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act.    It was not passed until 2009 despite efforts to do so going back to President Clinton.     And, you may notice that it is named for both Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., an African American man who was dragged to death by three white men in Jasper, Texas in 1998.      When both of these events came to their conclusions in the play, the audience applauded.

Yet, perhaps, the most emotional moments in Ten Years Later are the interviews with Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney.    Once again, Henderson comes off sympathetically.    He sends drawings to his grandmother of Jesus (she is interviewed).    He has attempted to earn an education in prison which has been thwarted by the necessity for him to be moved to other federal prisons due to overcrowding.   Currently the two men are in federal prison in Virginia.    It is interesting that they have always been moved together.   Henderson makes it clear to the interviewer that he has very little contact with McKinney.

Aaron McKinney is a piece of work.    It is clear that he enjoys the spotlight that 20/20 granted him.    He is vague in his interview, yet comes off as a chilling, unremorseful killer.     He claims that he doesn't remember that he spun the drug deal gone bad tale to 20/20.   He is proud of his tattoos, many of which depict white power symbols.   He brags that he plans to do his entire torso in tattoos.     He only seems to regret the involvement of his friend, Russell Henderson.       It is a disturbing sequence in the play, but it is one of the most visceral for the audience.

Tectonic Theater Project is to be commended for this project.    They have captured a small city's views and feelings and given depth to a story that doesn't fit the national news media's narrative.    The people of Laramie, Wyoming who agreed to having their lives depicted on stage deserve our thanks for letting the world intrude so that the truth about Matthew Shepard's death and its impact on their lives can be known.

The Laramie Project for three performances and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later  for two performances were presented as part of a national tour November 19-21, 2010 at the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theater.    The company invites people to "continue the discussion and join The Laramie Project Online Community" at www.laramieproject.org.

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